Despite reform, Turkmens told to exalt late autocrat's book

Reuters News
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Posted: Sep 12, 2012 11:57 AM
Despite reform, Turkmens told to exalt late autocrat's book

By Marat Gurt

ASHGABAT (Reuters Life!) - The president of the Central Asian state of Turkmenistan on Wednesday suggested there were limits to his desire to reform, urging the nation to honor a book written by his predecessor, one of the world's most eccentric autocrats.

Seeking warmer ties with the West as he seeks alternative gas export routes to cut his country's dependence on Russia, Turkmen President Kurbanguly Berdymukhamedov has begun to slowly unwind his predecessor's policies amid some signs he is ready to gradually allow more freedom.

Turkmenistan holds the world's fourth-largest natural gas reserves and multi-national energy companies have assiduously tried to court its government for access in recent years.

But in a move that suggested radical political change may be some way off, Berdymukhamedov on Wednesday exhorted his nation to treasure the "holy book" authored by Saparmurat Niyazov, the country's first post-Soviet leader who was famous for renaming the months of the year after members of his own family.

Praising its take on Turkmenistan's "inimitable culture, peculiar way of life and rich spiritual world", he made it clear that the book - the "Rukhnama" - would still remain the centerpiece of Turkmen society.

"The Rukhnama has helped the world to learn about the numerous great states built by our nation throughout its history," he said in a written address to the nation marking "Rukhnama Day".

"The Rukhnama will continue to serve as a spiritual source that multiplies our energy and strength."

Berdymukhamedov, a 55-year-old qualified dentist with a penchant for sports cars and riding thoroughbred horses, is officially nicknamed "Arkadag" or The Patron and wields virtually unlimited powers.

But Niyazov, who died of heart failure in 2006 and ruled his reclusive Central Asian nation for more than two decades, was widely regarded as one of the world's most bizarre and strict autocrats.

Officially titled "Turkmenbashi", or Head of the Turkmen, he published the Rukhnama in 2001 and made it central to all aspects of life in the country.

It replaced history lessons in schools and knowledge of the book was even made mandatory for anyone who wanted to obtain a driving license.

The book, a mixture of folklore, morality, autobiography and history written in oracular style, glorifies the Turkmen as a 5,000-year-old nation which founded 70 states and empires.

Niyazov's reign was marked by a ban on opera, circus and ballet in the desert nation of 5.5 million people.

He renamed the months of the year after national symbols or family members, cut the length of school and university studies and banned studying abroad.

Berdymukhamedov has moved to gradually unwind some of his predecessor's policies.

He has allowed wide access to the Internet, let Turkmen citizens study abroad and restored the National Academy of Sciences abolished by his predecessor. Opera and circus - but not classical ballet - have also returned.

In the field of education, secondary school pupils study for 10 years, rather than nine under Niyazov, and undergraduate students spend five years, rather than three, at university.

Compulsory daily Rukhnama drills in schools have been reduced to one hour a week and school-leavers no longer have to pass exams on knowledge of the book. The month of September, renamed Rukhnama by Niyazov, has also been given back its original name.

(Writing by Dmitry Solovyov; Editing by Andrew Osborn)